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Oklahoma: The First State to Lose Its NCLB Waiver Over Standards

The latest round of waiver decisions from the U.S. Department of Education produced a first: The agency denied Oklahoma's request because of the quality of its academic standards.

In the three years that the federal government has been offering states waivers from No Child Left Behind, it's been most likely to find fault with states' requests because of the way they plan to handle teacher evaluations. Sometimes there have been hitches over their accountability plans. But never has a state been denied a waiver, or a waiver-extension request, because its standards were deemed not good enough.

The immediate spin on the decision was an outcry from conservatives and common-core opponents that the Department of Education was meddling inappropriately with academic decisions that should be left up to states.

"Obama Administration Punishes Oklahoma for Repealing Common Core Standards," said one such headline.

Common-core advocates, and the Education Department, countered that Oklahoma's problem didn't arise from repealing the common standards, but from replacing them with poor-quality standards. A task force is writing a new set of standards for 2015-16, but in the meantime, Oklahoma reverted to the standards that were in place before it adopted the common core. That set hasn't drawn high praise for its rigor. It could meet waiver requirements by having its higher-education system certify the standards as college-ready, but it has no timeline for doing so.

As a result, the U.S. Education Department said in its decision letter that "Oklahoma can no longer demonstrate that the state's standards are college- and career-ready standards."

In considering waivers, the department has said that states could meet the "college and career-ready standards" part of the requirement by using the Common Core State Standards, or by coming up with their own and having their university systems certify that they represent good preparation for college.

Many have noted that states that didn't adopt the common standards have won waivers. Alaska, Texas, and Virginia are examples. Even Indiana, which threw out the common core this past spring, won a waiver extension from the Education Department yesterday. Indiana wrote new standards—which draw heavily on the common core—and had them certified by its higher education system. South Carolina won a waiver extension in July even though it had reversed course on the common core and was working to create its own state standards. But it's using the common standards for the 2014-15 school year.

My colleague Lauren Camera has much more for you on the most recent round of waiver decisions over at the Politics K-12 blog.

Something else that's notable about the department's waivers: No state has yet been denied a waiver or an extension because of its testing plans.

As you might recall, one of the things a state has to do to get a waiver is to promise that it will administer college- and career-ready tests to students annually starting in 2014-15. States could meet that requirement by using the tests developed by PARCC or Smarter Balanced, the two state consortia, or some other test that will meet the department's approval as "college- and career-ready."

Many states have dropped out of the consortia, and even more plan to use non-consortium tests this spring even as they maintain their membership in one or both groups. All in all, 24 states were planning to use tests developed by an organization other than PARCC or Smarter Balanced. And nearly all those states have waivers.

When waiver states promise to use PARCC or Smarter Balanced and then change their minds, they've typically gotten letters from the Department of Education asking them to detail their new testing plans. Using other tests, though, has not yet resulted in a waiver being yanked. Just this week, Kansas got an extension even though it's using tests designed by the University of Kansas. Ditto for Michigan, which is revising its own MEAP test this year instead of using the Smarter Balanced assessment.

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